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Minnesota Football: Are the Gophers too cool for 7-2?

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Minnesota is 7-2 for the third time in four years. Yet no one — not even Gopher fans — seems to be the least bit impressed.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

The Minnesota Golden Gophers are 7-2 for the third time in four years. That’s the most successful four-year stretch (29 wins and counting) this program has experienced since 2003-06 (30 combined wins). But no one — not even Gopher fans — seems to have anything more than a shrug and a “Meh” to offer. Why is that?

Yes, just two of their seven wins have come against opponents with a winning record (Colorado State and Maryland). Yes, the Gophers needed a last-minute field goal to squeak out a two-point victory over Rutgers at home.

But the 2013 Golden Gophers were also sitting at 7-2 with just two wins over opponents with a winning record (UNLV and Nebraska). Those Gophers needed a last-minute fumble recovery to seal a three-point road win over Indiana. Everyone remembers the surprise 34-23 win over Nebraska at home, but not many recall the doom and gloom after back-to-back deflating losses to Iowa and Michigan.

The 2014 Golden Gophers — easily the best team from the Jerry Kill era — were a similar story at 7-2, but with just one win over an opponent with a winning record (Iowa). That team needed a Jalen Myrick kickoff return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter to edge Northwestern (5-7 that season) at home. And who can forget the one-point comeback victory over Purdue (3-9) at home after trailing 31-20 at halftime. Everyone remembers the 51-14 win over Iowa, but few people are still complaining about the ugly wins over Northwestern and Purdue. And I don’t even need to bring up the 28-24 road loss to Illinois (6-7), because I know that one still stings for a lot of Gopher fans, even two years removed.

What about margin of victory? Because when the Gophers win, one point of contention is almost always the expected margin of victory. Let’s take a look:

2013: 16.9
2014: 15.9
2016: 14.7

The differences are marginal at best. So it’s not like the 2013 and 2014 Golden Gophers were more dominant than this year’s team. So what is it?

Let me take a wild guess: It’s because, in the eyes of more than a few Minnesota fans, the 2016 Golden Gophers should be better than their 2013 and 2014 counterparts. This program should be taking the next step and competing with the upper tier of the Big Ten, rather than celebrating wins over the bottom of the barrel.

With Nebraska, Northwestern, and Wisconsin to close out the regular season, it won’t take long to find out if this program can compete with their top competitors in the West. But I would also stress that good teams take care of business against inferior competition, and this year’s Gophers have done that for the most part (I’ll let you be the judge of whether or not Iowa is considered “inferior,” as Penn State has looked the part of a Big Ten contender after the Gophers’ loss in Happy Valley). Has it been pretty? Absolutely not. But would you prefer the alternative to an ugly win? Because I know the hand wringing would be three times worse in our comments section here at TDG if Minnesota had dropped any of the last four games.

There is nothing wrong with holding this program to a high standard. But expecting them to dominate lower competition week in and week out like Ohio State and Michigan is setting yourself up for disappointment. Minnesota is never going to be that type of program. The Gophers are never going to be 50 points better than a Big Ten opponent. More often than not, this program’s victories are going to be hard fought contests that won’t win them a lot of style points. Once in a while they may surprise you with a blowout, but that will be the exception, not the rule.

If this team goes 0-3 over the next three weeks, I’ll be right there with you shaking my head at the lack of progress. I’m not saying that this coaching staff is above reproach at 7-2 or that this team hasn’t warranted criticism, but don’t take for granted a football program that seems to be on a solid foundation, at the very least. I’d like to see this program take the next step too, but I’m also not going to forget what it was like when this program was a sinking ship. There are plenty of Big Ten programs who’d rather be sitting in the Gophers’ spot right about now.

Let the national media ignore the 7-2 Minnesota Golden Gophers. It doesn’t mean we have to, too. Life’s too short not to enjoy a win on college football Saturdays.